Veteran / by Stillwater Magazine

by nighttrain schickele

 

          Paintballing was an adrenaline rush. I was under heavy enemy-fire behind a eucalyptus tree. The bullets were breaking into blue and orange paste as they smacked the other side of the bark. The pellets whizzed by my ears. The plastic visor on my mask was fogging up and sweat was dripping into my eye. I tasted the dirt in the air. You could see the dust puffing up from the ground where the bullets landed, whirling in the sunstroke.

            “Fall back,” someone screamed. I thought I had to be in a war to hear that. But this was war; a paint war; a simulated war. It felt dangerous and real. The enemy came running out of the trees, blazing their paintball-guns and screaming too. I ran deeper into the woodland, firing behind my back when my friend tripped on a log. I grabbed the nape of his shirt and pulled him across the foliage as we fired our guns and yelled. The forest was a storm of firecrackers. The heat was horrid and we fell onto our backs hoping not to be seen. The cracking stopped.

“Should we go?” I half whispered. My friend fearfully cocked his head up to check the front. We started to run. Then we were shot in the back.

            During the car ride home, we reminisced about that battle. “That was awesome,” we said. Cold soda cooled the insides of our legs. Our parents were driving. We weren’t even sixteen yet.

 

***

Sometimes, when I meet machismo sort of people—the kind of people who admire Julius Caesar and Sun Tsu, the kind of people who look at me queerly when I can’t name famous quarterbacks—I tell them that I play paintball. Although I’ve only gone paintballing some six odd weekends in junior high, the military sport made me feel like a veteran, or some version of one, at least. I have a few distant cousins who read Tom Clancy novels. They call America the modern Rome. They know about my tap dancing recitals. They know I sing in a choir. But paintballing is what they ask me about—the art of war. There’s little pride in gentle things, but there’s honor in aggression. There’s honor in paintball.

People think I am stronger for playing the game. What they don’t immediately consider is that I cannot die in paintball. I cannot kill anyone in paintball. Yet, paintball perpetrates the identity of a warrior, an identity I’ve never wanted. I don’t want to be a veteran. And I’d think that true veterans live with scars that cannot wash away. Scars that make them wish they were not veterans.

My cousin called me one night. I was too young to tell that he was a little drunk. He lived in Jackson, Colorado—an oil town with a bar and a few mining pits. I’ve only seen Danny a few times in my life.

“Hey Nighttrain,” I noticed that he wasn’t used to saying my name, but I was happy he called. His voice was coarse and affable. He sounded like a young father, but Danny had no children or lover. “How ya doin’ man?” he said.

“Good! Busy and stuff. Getting ready for this tap recital thing.”

“Huh, yeah cool. Hey is your mom home?”

*

 I remember meeting Danny in Denver when I was nine years old and a bit chubby. I had long, blond hair, a round belly and some geeky sandals. I hugged him when we met and I hugged him when we said goodbye. I’d never heard my mom referred to as “Aunt Gail.” Something about that attracted me to Danny. On a restaurant’s patio he sipped a beer. The sun was orange. Mom went to the bathroom so I could have a few moments alone with my cousin. I asked Danny what kind of guns he used in boot camp.

“So like, Aye Kay forty sevens?” I asked.

“No, we don’t really use those anymore.” Danny always said “no” before his sentences. His beer was long finished. “No, M-16’s, mainly now. Yeah, no — AK-47’s are old now.”

*

When I picked up the phone, years later, he was asking for Aunt Gail. “Hey is your mom home?”

Gail was out. But I asked him how he was doing anyway. I felt guilty that I hadn’t spoken with him in so long. He was in his late twenties, and he’d been back from a long tour in Iraq and Afghanistan for almost eight months. I was sixteen now, practicing my electric guitar upstairs and practicing tap steps in my socks. But I didn’t tell him that.

I guess I was scared of Danny, Mr. Iraqi Freedom, seeing me as some sort of pansy, so I asked him about war. I asked about his Iraqi stories, and he gladly told me. The Iraqi villagers—you should have seen it—loved Danny and all the other American soldiers. They adored them, Danny said. And when they packed up their Humvees to leave, the villagers would cry in the road.

“You should have seen it, Nighttrain.” I gave him lots of wows and reallys and said that’s crazy. But truthfully, I wanted to say goodbye after a few more questions. I had other things to do that evening.

“Have you…wow. Did you ever fire your…your weapon? Did people ever fire at you?”

“Yeah,” he said, like he was thinking it over. “No, yeah, I’ve been in a few firefights.” Danny told me about the bullet that shattered a window near his buddy’s head. The two of them squatted for an hour, waiting for backup, sweating behind some sheet metal.

“Really? Wow, that’s crazy,” I said. “Hey, if you don’t want to talk about this or something that’s cool. I was just curious—“

“No, this is good Nighttrain. Yeah, no, it’s good to talk about it.” I realized this wasn’t an average conversation for Danny, so I stopped pacing the room and waiting for an appropriate moment to say goodbye and hang up.

*

I remember seeing Danny in Wyoming one summer. His arm was in a cast at the time. Mom told me that he got it at his homecoming party. I asked her what happened but Mom said “shh” as we walked towards Danny in the parking lot. Mom became Aunt Gail and hugged him a while.

I asked Danny if he was scared to go back again. It would be Afghanistan next.

“No, this is good for me. This is a good thing.” Danny had heard enough from his friends and family about the army being dangerous. He knew what he had signed up for. I kept giving him hugs like Aunt Gail had until Danny pursed his lips and said, “How bout’ a handshake?” He gave me a strong one through the shoulders with his good arm, as if he was teaching me how to shake like a man.

*

Danny’s phone call was from Colorado. He was on leave, recovering from a rifle that had backfired into his shoulder. I could tell by the flow of his voice that this phone call wasn’t going to end anytime soon. I didn’t even need to ask him questions anymore—he just kept talking.

In this story, there was a man, a bad man, an enemy, with information. There was intelligence, Danny said, that the man, the enemy, was in a house up the hill. Danny’s regiment combed up the wheat grass when a dog started to bark.

“So we shot the dog…” Danny continued the story that I’m sure was gripping but I couldn’t pay attention. The phone was getting hot on my ear and I wanted to hang up.

“Why did you shoot the dog?” I made sure not to sound angry or appalled. In fact, I asked it coldly—chuckled as if someone had goofed, like he put orange juice in his cereal. Why’d you shoot the dog, silly?

“It was blowing our cover. So we surrounded the house…“ It was just a dog, I guess. Collateral damage in the cost of saving lives, I guess. But it was taking life, right? Dog life? I persisted once more, asking if it was necessary to shoot the dog—

“Look, I don’t know why the dog is the issue here,” he said with the same friendly snicker I had given him. Danny had much more to say, but I only picked up bits and pieces. Dogs…kids with guns…IEDs.

Perhaps I was not old enough to understand. Perhaps I’d been getting soft with tap dancing and boys chorus while soldiers were crawling behind rocks, bleeding from their legs. “And I’ll tell you, it wasn’t pretty, you know,” he said. I tried to imagine Danny’s heat and sweat and adrenaline beneath the blue-white glare of the desert’s war-torn sky. I wondered if the dust whirled in the sunrays when bullets landed in the ground, if his gunfights were like a storm of firecrackers. Was it anything like paintball…

 

There’s a picture of Danny and me sitting on a bed with a comic book. I’m leaning into his shoulder in silk pajamas trying to read the same comic-panels. We look very alike, wearing oval classes, immersed in what is probably Spider-Man. I’m describing this picture because it’s before Danny joined the army, and we’re both very eager on super heroes. But the cousin who called me years later was a different Danny. An older Danny I didn’t know. A Danny I didn’t want to know.

I can’t help but think selfishly on the concept of trading lives—how Danny could have been me, and me Danny. Our blood was the same but our parents were very different. Uncle Marty, Danny’s father, was a pro-war, oil driller. Aunt Gail, my mother, was an environmental activist from San Francisco.

Just maybe, I’ve thought, if our parents had mingled a tad differently before Danny and I were born, Danny would be on the west coast, applying to liberal art schools, playing electric guitar, tap dancing, shooting his friends with paint balls in the California eucalyptus.

And I, Nighttrain, would have sat with my little cousin on a porch before I was shipped off, explaining how the army “was good for me.” I would have returned after two long years in Iraq and thrown my arm into my friend’s window at my homecoming party, loosing half my blood on the front lawn. I would recover and drink and get some feeling back in my arm. I would go back to the sands again and fight, possibly kill, in my own moral eyes. Then return to my oil town in Colorado where I would drink with a few hoorah pals at the bar, reminisce Desert Storm, empty bottles on the table, refills. Stand on my barstool and yell, “Long Live George Bush.” Get a DUI. Declined from a new job. Think it’s all over. Think that I’d failed. I’d be waiting to get shipped out again, waiting to fight for freedom again. And one night, alone in my room, after calling all my folks and no one picking up, I’d become a casualty of war.

The paper programs for the church’s memorial service had a pencil-sketched forest printed onto them. I didn’t know that Danny could draw. I grazed Danny’s forest with my finger as an officer read his damn eulogy. “Honorary suppressing-fire this, bravery recognition that. I thought how the universe might have put Danny sitting where I was, head down in the pews. I didn’t know that Danny was an artist.

When the floor opened up for those who wanted to share any stories, no one left their seats except for one of Danny’s friends. He was the only person behind the podium, I remember, to speak without mentioning the military. He said that Danny pulled up in his truck, one time. Showed up when his friends weren’t expecting him.

“That was a thing Danny did, no phone call or anything. Sometimes, would just, show up.” That’s all we could say about Danny. There was so much more to share, but none of us knew what to say because Danny had never shared enough of himself. Danny’s life didn’t matter outside of the service. All of Danny’s goodwill had been invested in the national cause. Here I am, wishing he had stayed home and painted or written. Danny might have been upset for why we weren’t all at his back, why his friends and family weren’t riding in his cavalry. Maybe even for why I didn’t enlist, myself.

This year, I visited the Vietnam Memorial in Washington D.C. It wasn’t Vietnam, or necessarily Danny that made me light headed. It was the thousands, the millions of veterans, who could have been in my place. The veterans who are still alive but quickly dying inside. I’m still living, still loved by a few, leaning on a fencepost, whispering apologies into the ground. Call me illogical, or even selfish for feeling guilty when I have no clear reason to be. I won’t argue with you. I cannot blame what happened on anyone but everyone, including myself, for not calling Danny more often.

58,286 others, chiseled into the slick granite in D.C., each one Daniel Granica. Not even the same war. Didn’t even die in combat. Why didn’t he draw, I’ve thought. I didn’t know that Danny could draw.

Veteran suicides have only been tracked since 2008.

22 military veterans commit suicide every day.